Douglas Trumbull, the Man Who Has Revolutionized Movies Several Times, Wants to Try Again

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With this week's Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

Douglas Trumbull wants movies to be big again. The man who realized 2001: A Space Odyssey's spaceship ballet, Blade Runner's foggy future, the blooming spaceships of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the momentous introduction to the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture grew up on spectacle that demanded the highest, widest screens imaginable. Innovations like “Cinerama” and “Super Panavision” felt as otherworldly as the latest space satellite. When Trumbull started making movies, his goal was to instill that awe in the next generation. At 72, he continues to forge that future with a new innovation he calls MAGI, a digital-projection method optimized for the eye-popping trifecta of 3-D, 4K, 120fps imagery.

To get a clear picture of moviemaking's past, present, and future, we spoke to Trumbull about his tech-driven career, the ups and downs of dreaming big, and what the future of movies has looked like over the past several decades.

UFOTOG (2014)

Trumbull's latest project is a short film meant to demo his latest innovation: The MAGI process, a projection method optimized for 3-D, 4K, 120fps imagery. He intends to direct another feature film employing the exhibition innovation.

Since most people haven't seen your UFOTOG road show, can you explain how you see the MAGI process changing the way we watch movies?
I’m just so excited because for me, it’s the first time that digital is actually not [just] as good as film, but far better than film. And it has all the wonderful attributes of low cost and digital compositing and magical things we can do with high-speed cameras. So I wrote and directed this little short film called UFOTOG, which is a demo of this process, but it’s also a demo of me as a writer-director, because I’m trying to see if I can’t make another shot at this, to maybe be the first director to make a movie in this radical new process, because there’s already tens of thousands of theaters that can run it.

So unlike Showscan, current projectors can automatically upgrade to this new system?
It’s not as simple as that, but there are tens of thousands of what they call “series two DLP digital projectors” already out, deployed all around the world, that can run at 48 or 60 frames per second. They got all ready in order to do the release of The Hobbit at 48 frames. But they were capable of 60 as well. I invented and patented this new technique, which is how to get 120 frames out of 60. It still doesn’t solve the brightness issue, which is very lousy in a lot of theaters. It doesn’t solve the screen-size issue, which is lousy in most theaters. It doesn’t solve everything, but it does make the movie completely lifelike without any blurring or strobing. It’s just completely liquid, fluid, crisp, lifelike imagery.

Are studios and theater chains receptive to the MAGI upgrade?
Given that the movie industry just transformed to digital in a very wrenching way over the last ten or 15 years, the exhibitors who might otherwise further upgrade probably feel like they just gave blood, and why would anyone ask them to do it again? Nevertheless, I think the writing is on the wall that attendance is dropping precipitously, and movies that everybody thought were going to be big hits are dying overnight, and young people and particularly anybody are downloading and streaming and Netflixing and watching their movies that way because it’s cheaper, easier, more convenient. The multiplex is in your pocket. It’s not in a movie theater anymore.

And so my philosophy is that if you want people to go to movie theaters, you’ve got to offer something that’s really, truly spectacular. And I’d like to see the movie industry take those multiplexes and un-chop them up. I’d rather have fewer spectacular theaters than tons of cheap little multiplexes. That’s my philosophy that I’m trying to pitch to everybody, and just about all the major exhibitors are headed in that direction because they realize that the IMAX theaters are making more money per seat than regular theaters. Some of them want to make their own brands, so Regal has their RPX and AMC has something else, and because anyone can buy a digital projector. You don’t have to license the IMAX brand name particularly. So you can get a big screen and a better experience, and you can convert to 4K and you can get bigger brightness. And Christie and Dolby are now delivering this new laser-illumination system that’s really spectacular, so that you can quadruple the size of the screen and keep the brightness up. So there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline, but I think it’ll take several years of transformation again, and it won’t be easy.

The Tree of Life (2011)

For his existential trip through space and time, Terrence Malick hired Trumbull to consult with his visual-effects team on intergalactic images that would stand apart.

When you consulted on Tree of Life, tech-minded press made a big deal about reviving the 2001 visual-effects methodology ...
I never thought of it as a revival because I’m not into revivals. None of those techniques, of photographing liquids in water or chemicals or anything, have ever gone away; they’ve just gone into the background because they’ve been supplanted by computer graphics. And the method du jour of the last 20 years has been entirely computer graphics. And even major studios like ILM — George Lucas’s company, which started out building lots of miniatures for Star Wars and various other movies — ultimately closed down those facilities and used entirely 100 percent computer graphics. And if they needed a miniature or an explosion or something, they would just sub-contract it out to another company. They didn’t want to carry any of the old stuff. But I’ve never thought of it as old stuff. I think miniatures are still superior to a lot of computer graphics.

How did 21st-century technology evolve these time-honored effects?
We could only do so much in 2001 because we were shooting everything with 65mm negative film and none of the cameras would safely go beyond about 72 frames [per] second without the camera just jamming. So that was a limitation at the time. Now, with the advent of digital photography, we’ve got these amazing cameras that’ll go 1,000 frames [per] second with the push of a button, effortlessly, without jamming, because they’re digital, they’re not using film at all. And that’s enabled a whole new look at the world of chemical reactions and events that can happen almost instantaneously, and be so slowed down that they look really amazing and complex in a way that you couldn’t write code for a computer to generate that event. That’d be extremely difficult. I like the unknown. That’s what Terry Malick has always really liked. He’s always looking for the unexpected. He wanted to create opportunities to get the camera rolling at the time some really weird phenomena would occur in front of the camera. Hopefully be in focus, and be able to use it as an element in some kind of composite shot that would be composited digitally. But the elements of it would be shot in some, what we call an organic effect, in a tank of water or liquids or something like that.

Back to the Future ... the Ride (1991)

After spending years developing Showscan only to see his studio backing fall to the wayside, Trumbull quit Hollywood. He set up shop in Massachusetts in hopes of figuring out what to do next. Then Universal Studios called, looking for help.

I've heard you describe this Universal Studios attraction as one of the most important projects of your career. What were you able to do with it?
There were other people working on the ride before I was who were failing miserably and didn’t know how to make it work. But they’d already built the building and bought the cars and bought the projectors and bought the screens, and I said, “Okay, I’ll fix this for you.” To me that was another experiment in what I call “immersive cinema.” You’re no longer just sitting in your theater seat looking at a rectangular screen; you’re completely surrounded by the movie, and yet it’s fully dramatic and kinesthetic, and you’re inside the movie, and you’re becoming kind of a character, or an actor, or a participant in the movie. And it was really an interesting dynamic because they said, “Well, for contractual reasons, you can’t talk to Michael J. Fox or anybody” [who] had to do with the feature film. It had to be something that was completely fresh and different because it’ll trigger all kinds of payments that we have to make to them. That was when I realized, “You know what, you don’t need Michael J. Fox because you are Michael J. Fox.” You’re in the DeLorean Car. Biff and Doc Brown were not under the same kind of contracts, so we had them with peripheral characters, but you get to be in the actual car yourself. So it was a paradigm shift in the audience’s relationship to the movie.

It was a lot of fun, it was hugely successful. It played in all three theme parks for about 15 years. It’s still running in Osaka [at Universal Studios Japan] after 20 years. And I would imagine that this ride has made over a billion dollars for Universal and Spielberg over the time it’s been running. But again, I became disillusioned and kind of disappointed that it never got reviewed as cinema. It was dismissed as a successful theme-park ride, but in terms of the annals of cinema, or what George Méliès did, or what Thomas Edison did, or anybody else did over the course of the development of movies, the Back to the Future ride was probably the most immersive, dramatic experience ever produced. And yet it’s very misunderstood.

What technology went into rendering more “immersive” cinema? I'm guessing building a dinosaur that could chomp on the DeLorean was actually the easier part.
[We shot with a] 15-perf, 70mm IMAX dome fish-eye process. And in order to make the show, we actually had to build special IMAX cameras and motion-control systems. At the time we were doing the show, which was about 1990, there was no IMAX optical printing. We had to actually shoot everything in-camera, as much as we conceivably could. So it was a very complex and difficult shoot, and we had to build these miniature IMAX cameras that were scaled down so small so that they could fit inside these miniature sets. So everything in the movie was scaled to fit to the cameras, rather than vice versa. And I was very proud of it. We invented a whole kinesthetic language so that the motion of the camera was corresponding to the motion of the vehicle that you’re gonna be in, so you can feel it turning or swooping or diving, accelerating or crashing or whatever. And people did not get sick because it was a very complicated little language we had to create for it.

Brainstorm (1983)

Trumbull's second directorial effort starred Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as scientists who invent a way to visualize the brain's reactions and sensations so that they can be experienced by outsiders — a story hook directly tied to the film's intended special effects.

You spent many years developing Showscan, an IMAX precursor that would project 70mm film at 60 frames per second. How close did you come to using it in a film?
It was designed to be used on Brainstorm. Kind of a big turning point in my life [because] I couldn’t get anybody to do it. But the process itself worked great. Everybody loved it, the studios loved it, the exhibitors loved it, and actors and producers and directors loved it and thought it was spectacular and great. But getting the movie industry to actually convert to a new technology turned out to just be impossible. And I finally had to give up because I got Paramount very close to committing to producing Brainstorm in the process. It was actually written for the process, under orders from the chairman of the board of Paramount Pictures. And we did it, and then they started researching, Well, if we spend $10 million on this movie, where do we show it? And they went to the exhibitors, and they said, “We’d love to show it, but we’ll only convert theaters for this process if all the studios will make their movies this way – then it’ll be a worthwhile investment.” And so it became a big catch-22 of nobody willing to say yes. So I had to give up on it. I had to just put that on the back burner, and just did Brainstorm conventionally, and unfortunately Natalie Wood had her tragic event and died during production, and I just decided to leave the movie industry altogether. I was just completely disgusted by the entire experience.

Can you describe what the experience of watching Brainstorm in Showscan would have been like?
It was written so that every time you put on the helmet and suddenly take on the view of another character, it becomes Showscan. It wasn’t like a dream sequence, which is always dreamy and kind of cloudy or black and white or whatever. It was the opposite of that; it became hyperreal, and the screen size would go up, and the stereo sound would kick in.

It sounds similar to what Christopher Nolan's films do when they jump from 35mm to IMAX.
The whole idea of changing formats, or changing aspect ratios, has become quite legitimate. [Nolan has] made a huge effort in Interstellar to take advantage of that to its maximum potential. But nevertheless, there’s no question that film is just about dead. And it may be the last time anybody ever gets a chance to do that.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Trumbull earned his first Academy Award nomination for Steven Spielberg's drama of obsession and extraterrestrial contact.

Did your love for big-screen exhibition inform the way you were designing and executing visual effects? Even when I watch the Close Encounters spaceship-landing sequence at home, it feels huge.
I’m an artist and a designer and a geek and an engineer and a director. So every time I’ve had an opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott, or any of the people that I’ve worked with, they understand that I’m a director, so they often give me a whole sequence to create, where they kind of get out of the way and let me have my way. [On Close Encounters], I convinced Steven that we should do all the visual effects in 70mm. The movie was shot in 35mm anamorphic, but I said, “Let’s do the effects in 70mm.” We were always working in the giant screen process, even though we knew it was going to get dumbed down and compressed into a 35mm print for regular theaters. But you know, in my heart, I was still remembering the great days of 2001, when the movie was shot in 70mm and projected in 70mm, which was all but gone except for IMAX [...] We did the groundbreaking work on [Close Encounters], developing motion control, smoke room, fluid "cloud tank" effects, and myriad miniature lighting systems. These were all used again on Blade Runner, which explains the similarity between the Mothership and the Blimp, the UFOs and the Spinners, etc., as well as the atmospheric effects achieved with "smoke room" technology.

Silent Running (1972)

Though Trumbull worked with many of the biggest directors in Hollywood, his ambitions were to tell his own stories. He got that chance with this Bruce Dern–led, environmentally conscious sci-fi picture.

You're a science-fiction buff who had the desire to direct. While I'm sure Silent Running's imagery and ideas drew you to it, were you interested in overseeing a project that would allow you to develop new visual-effect techniques?
Yeah, there were several reasons. One of them was that I wanted to direct my own film. The second was that I had seen a film by Tod Browning called Freaks, which had this amazing guy named Johnny Eck, who had no lower body. He walked on his hands. And I was amazed. I thought, Oh, this could be a really cool robot,” because no one could figure out how it worked, because it wouldn’t look like a guy in a robot suit like C-3P0 or something. And so the whole idea of the drones came out of seeing that movie, and we designed them for that purpose. So it was a series of developments, but it was also a way for me to explore directing for the first time, as well as doing effects that I knew I could do based on what I’d learned on 2001, but do them much less expensively, for a fraction of the cost.

2001 used a lot of what’s called front projection. You project an image onto this giant reflective screen, and the image bounces back and comes back to the lens and seems to be in the background behind the actors. The whole “dawn of man” sequence in 2001 was projected eight-by-ten photographs of the African savannah. And I figured out how to do that very inexpensively and very portably, and built a very small front-projection machine with an engineer friend of mine. We were able to shoot 15 front-projection shots a day during normal principal photography. That had never been done before. And it worked really great, and I designed the movie to work with it. It didn’t require that the plates be moving, they could be still photographs of just stars or some background event. But that lent Silent Running a lot of production scope that it wouldn’t ordinarily have had as a low-budget, independent-type movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Trumbull started his career as an illustrator and designer, working with the Graphic Films Corporation on a series of short films for NASA and the New York World’s Fair. The company's 1964 film To the Moon and Beyond, a 70mm giant-dome movie chronicling the time since the Big Bang, caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, who was in pre-production on 2001. The director hired Graphic Films for design research and Trumbull found himself designing moon terrains and lunar landers. When Kubrick eventually ended his contract with the company, the designer called his former employer looking to continue his work on the project. Without too much experience, Trumbull became the special photographic-effects supervisor.

2001 was your first Hollywood motion-picture job, but was the work evolving past what others were doing in the special effects field?
Oh, absolutely. 2001 was being made in the 70mm version of Cinerama. So it was [five-perforation tall] 70mm instead of the three-camera, three-projector original Cinerama format. It leant itself to compositing and visual effects and miniatures and things like that. And we were all, including Stanley Kubrick, on a very steep learning curve, because no one knew how to do this. There wasn’t any real background for how to do a movie of this nature and scope to the level of quality that Kubrick wanted. And so it was a big R&D program to invent new ways to build cameras and new ways to photograph miniatures, and new ways to composite using the old cyan-magenta masters. And we pretty much had to reinvent the whole process of visual effects.

What did you learn about miniature photography shooting 2001's space shuttles and elaborate locations?
That depth of field is vitally important. You can’t let anything get out of focus, and so the camera aperture is going to be very tiny. By its nature, the exposure times are going to be very long, sometimes several seconds per frame, which means that you have to have motorized means to very slowly move the camera over a miniature over a long period of time and get that all in balance, scale all the motions. So Wally Veevers, who was one of the effects supervisors, built all of these early motion-control systems that were driven by various kinds of motors and gears and shafts and pulleys, to be able to exactly repeat camera moves from one take to another and match them all together. And then there’s the aesthetics of lighting and what we call forced perspective. It’s a very old theatrical trick where the back of the stage looks like it’s in infinity and the foreground looks like it’s very close, and you scale everything proportionately. So we went through a big learning curve building forced-perspective miniatures of the moon, primarily, and then working out ways to sculpt it out of plaster, how to do drawings of what we wanted, project the drawings onto a big tabletop, trace the drawing off and then build a plaster model that would replicate this forced perspective we wanted. Everything was new and different.

Something like the stargate shot, I can’t think of anything before 2001 that looked like that. Did you guys have a reference point? Had you seen people make this effect before?
Well, the only reference point was a brief sequence in To the Moon and Beyond. At the end of that movie it became very abstract, and it was some photographic design technology developed by a man named John Whitney. It was a technique of moving backlit artwork in front of a single frame of film, and creating what we called a “controlled blur” so that the motion created a shape. You can imagine if you move a point of light across the film frame while the shutter is open, it creates a line of light. You know, like car headlights in a timed exposure. If you move a line of light in the timed exposure, you create a plane of light. And if you create a plane of light during an open exposure, you create a three-dimensional cube of light. So you can take that basic concept of controlled blurs and build some machinery that does that in a very specific way, with very specific kind of backlit artwork. [Whitney] had been doing it two-dimensionally, and I had this idea to do [the stargate] three-dimensionally. I built this machine that had to move from 15 feet away from a big piece of backlit artwork to an inch away, over about a minute, and this created those big planes of light that were backlit artwork exposed onto each frame. It took about a minute per exposure. The stargate is made of two walls, so it’s two minutes per frame plus two minutes reverse time to get back to the start point, so it’s like four minutes a frame. And it took forever, it took days on end with this machine running by itself in a darkened room.

The whole idea was to get the audience to buy the idea that Keir Dullea was not only personally transformed, but penetrating time and space in a completely fifth-dimensional kind of way, or tenth-dimensional kind of way, where time and space become irrelevant and he’s being transported lightyears from one place to another. Originally the movie called for kind of a slot in one of Jupiter’s moons, and if you looked through the slot you would see a universe at the other side of it that was different from ours, just like a time-gate portal. We couldn’t make that look good. And so the stargate idea came up, which was more of a transformational thing. You have to feel it, and you have to see it, and you have to intuitively understand that that’s what’s going on. And that’s the real magic of Kubrick’s directing of the movie, which was to let you interpret it any way you want without getting all pedantic about it.